Trinity Controversy in the Fourth Century

By Sean Finnegan

325 Council of Nicaea

• Constantine invited many bishops to his lake summer palace at Nicaea.
• Between 250 and 300 bishops attended, but only 5 from the West.
• Constantine suggested adding the word homoousios to the creed that Eusebius of Caesarea presented.
• The Creed of Nicaea declares the Son to be “begotten of the Father…that is, from the essence (ousia) of the Father…begotten not made, one in essence (homoousia) with the Father”.

Decades of Controversy

• The Council of Nicaea did not pacify the controversy but instead fueled it.
• Everyday people were informed and argued about the various positions in the streets, baths, and marketplaces.

Three Main Parties

• Homoousions (Athanasius)
• Anomoeans (Eunomius)
• Homoians (Acacius)

Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

• 326 - Became bishop of Alexandria
• Took up mantle of Alexander and fought tirelessly for the eternal Son position and homoousios
• Repeatedly deposed and exiled from Alexandria
• Spent at least 15 years in exile of his 45 year bishopric
• Used violent speech and physical violence to defeat his enemies


• Believed the Son was not like the Father
• Most famous representative was Eunomius.
• Strong subordinationists
• 357 - Second Creed of Sirmium


• Believed the Son was like the Father but not the same substance
• Constantinople was a homoian stronghold for decades prior to 381.
• 360 - Council of Constantinople produced a homoian creed.

Three Cappadocians

• Basil of Caesarea (330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390)
• Added in the Holy Spirit as worthy of worship and honor with the Father and Son
• Used terminology of three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia)

381 Council of Constantinople

• Attended by only 150, none from the West (thus not ecumenical)
• Not considered a definitive council in its time
• Produced the language recited in churches even to this day
• The Constantinopolitan Creed is often wrongly called the Nicene Creed today.

The State Church

• Emperor Theodosius decreed that all “Catholic Christians” had to accept the Trinity as defined at Constantinople in 381.
• 384 - Removed Altar of Victor from Senate in Rome
• Outlawed pagan sacrifices
• Widespread destruction of temples
• 388 - Marriage of Christians and Jews prohibited
• 399 - Country temples were destroyed.
• 408 - Only Catholic Christians can serve in the palace.
• 415 - Pagans barred from military and civil service
• The Constantinian shift was now complete.


• At the Council of Nicaea in 325, emperor Constantine introduced the theologically problematic word "homoousios" into the controversy over the Son's origin and substance.
• The original Nicene Creed did not mention three persons in one God, nor did it define the Holy Spirit.
• The theological civil war that Nicaea caused raged on for another 56 years (at least), as council after council favored different positions.
• The three main parties in the battle were homoousions (Nicenes), anomoeans (Arians), and homoians (Semi-Arians).
• Athanasius of Alexandria led the charge for the homoousions, attacking his theological enemies with viscous words, malicious politicking, and physical violence.
• Successive emperors supported different theological factions throughout the fourth century, swinging imperial favor back and forth.
• Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus (the three Cappadocians) developed the full-blown Trinity theory, including the Holy Spirit as worthy of equal worship and honor.
• Although it was not ecumenical nor well-attended, the 381 Council of Constantinople defined the doctrine of the Trinity many are familiar with today.
• Emperor Theodosius enforced the Constantinopolitan Creed for all "Catholic Christians" in his domain, limiting religious freedom for non-Trinitarians, pagans, and Jews.
• Theodosius completed the Constantinian shift by officially merging one brand of Christianity with the state.

LHIM Weekly Bible Teachings
LHIM Weekly Bible Teachings
Trinity Controversy in the Fourth Century

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